Nutrition Notes

Put Magnesium on the Menu at Thanksgiving

Good health is definitely something to be thankful for. Unfortunately, with nearly 84 million adults in the US living with prediabetes and another 27-28 million afflicted with type 2 diabetes, good health is not a given for everyone. Additionally, according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation, as many as 10 million Americans have osteoporosis and another 44 million have low bone density, putting them at increased risk. Moving from the body to the brain, depression, anxiety, and other psychological and mood issues plague millions more. Something that may be beneficial for all of these issues is a workhorse nutrient that may not get its share of the spotlight, being relegated to the shadows behind compounds that seem flashier and more buzzworthy. What is this critically important, time-tested, reliable go-to nutrient? Magnesium!

The human body contains about 25 grams of magnesium, which is needed for over 300 enzymatic reactions. However, data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) indicates that the majority of Americans of all ages consume less than their respective estimated average requirements (EARs). This is a major problem, because magnesium deficiency may play a role in hypertension, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and migraine headaches.

Magnesium is required for several enzymes in glycolysis, the first process in glucose metabolism, which may explain why it’s such an important factor for blood sugar regulation. Epidemiological evidence indicates magnesium intake is inversely correlated with risk for type 2 diabetes: higher magnesium intakes may reduce risk by as much as 17% and as much as 48% of people with type 2 diabetes may have hypomagnesaemia. Inverse correlations have been observed between circulating magnesium levels, fasting blood glucose and insulin levels and response to an oral glucose tolerance test (OGTT) in those with type 2 diabetes. Higher magnesium intakes are also associated with reduced risk for cardiovascular mortality, particularly in women, in whom it’s estimated that each 100 mg/day increase in dietary magnesium may confer as much as a 25% reduction in risk. Researchers have called subclinical magnesium deficiency “a principal driver of cardiovascular disease and a public health crisis.”

Regarding mental health, evidence suggests magnesium deficiency may play a role in the etiology of depression, and that high-dose supplementation may improve this condition. Other issues that have responded favorably to magnesium supplementation include irritability, insomnia, postpartum depression, and substance abuse. Suggestive but inconclusive evidence indicates that magnesium supplementation may also be beneficial for individuals with mild anxiety, possibly owing to its role as a natural relaxing agent.

As for osteoporosis, calcium gets all the love when it comes to bone mineral density, but magnesium is also essential for the physical structure of bone—about 60% of the body’s magnesium is stored in the bones. Considering the high prevalence of suboptimal magnesium intake in North America, the concurrent high prevalence of osteoporosis should perhaps be unsurprising. Adding insult to injury with regard to bone health, low magnesium status may interfere with the efficacy of vitamin D supplementation. A past article covered a review published in the Journal of the American Osteopathic Association in which researchers affirmed that vitamin D cannot be metabolized without sufficient magnesium levels.

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, how can you bring magnesium to the holiday table? Fortunately, this crucial mineral fits seamlessly into Thanksgiving entertaining. Serve mixed nuts as part of an appetizer or hors d’oeuvres while guests are socializing and catching up; they provide a substantial amount of magnesium. (Pumpkin seeds and Brazil nuts are especially good sources.) Nuts are also a nice addition to turkey stuffing/dressing or a whole grain salad or pilaf, which can provide even more magnesium: hard red winter wheat and buckwheat are good sources of this mineral. Leafy greens such as chard and spinach are reliable sources of magnesium as well, as are certain beans, such as black beans and kidney beans. (Nuts, seeds, and beans are high in phytic acid, a compound that binds to minerals, so in order to increase the bioavailability of magnesium in these foods, consider using a traditional preparation method, such as soaking, in order to neutralize some of this problematic molecule.)

And don’t forget the chocolate dessert alongside the pumpkin pie! Cocoa powder is a rich source of magnesium—in fact, it’s been speculated that chocolate cravings may be the body’s way of crying out for magnesium, but research on this is lacking, not to mention that foods much higher in magnesium aren’t usually the subject of cravings as intense as those for chocolate.

Concerns about nutrition typically fall by the wayside during the holidays, and it’s okay to indulge now and then, but it’s nice to know a Thanksgiving meal can deliver some magnesium to help with metabolizing the cranberry sauce, rolls, sweet potatoes, stuffing, and other carbs.